Time Essay: A New Distrust of the Experts

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"Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Thomas Jefferson's axiom remains an indispensable premise of democracy. Yet the possibility of a sage and knowing public seems to be growing ever more elusive. Since the rise of science and technology as the commanding force in both government and social change, it has become harder and harder for most Americans to become really well informed on the problems they face as individuals or citizens. Such a trend is bound to raise questions about the future of popular rule.

Nowadays the very vocabulary of public discourse can be bewildering. Even to be half informed, the American-on-the-street must grasp terms like deoxyribonucleic acid, fantastic prospects like genetic engineering, and bizarre phenomena like nuclear meltdown. The technical face of things has driven some people into a bored sort of cop-out—"science anxiety," it is called by Physics Professor Jeffry Mallow of Loyola University in Chicago. The predicament has made most Americans hostage to the superior knowledge of the expert: the scientist, the technician, the engineer, the specialist.

Society has grown so complicated that there is renewed interest in the possibility of a "science court" that might deal impartially with arcane controversy. It has grown so technical that some lawyers wonder whether ordinary electors can still adequately function as jurors. Says Attorney Gary Ahrens, a professor at the University of Iowa: "Practically nothing is commonsensical any more." Surely the spectacle of the public making decisions in semidarkness is an affront to common sense.

Dependency on the experts seemed tenable in the more innocent era when science was viewed as a virtually infallible cornucopia of social goodies. Americans long clung to Virgil's ancient advice: "Believe an expert." Today, however, Americans are no longer willing to acquiesce gratefully in either the discoveries of science or their application. The citizen has rediscovered that the best of experts will now and then launch an unsinkable Titanic.

The public has needed no expertise to read about DDT, thalidomide and cyclamates, nor to learn that the DES that seemed a nifty preventive of miscarriage in the 1950s was being linked to cancer a generation later. The citizen's problem, at bottom, is how to assess the things that so often come forth in the beguiling guise of blessings. What to believe? Whom to trust? This is a recipe for public frustration.

The shadow of science falls across decisions common to daily existence. Is this medication safe? Is forgoing sugar worth the hazards of saccharin? Are the conveniences of the Pill worth raising the risk of circulatory disease? The uncertain answers come from product analysts, dietitians, pharmacists, lawyers, physicians. American society, as Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk puts it, has become "dominated by professionals who call us 'clients' and tell us of our 'needs.' "

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